Jeannie checked her watch for the eighth time in twenty minutes. Clark hadn't responded to her calls or text messages for the past few hours. He was supposed to be here almost an hour ago. She was beginning to worry that he wasn't going to show at the Winter Ball. It was probably her nerves talking. This was Package Deal's biggest annual event, and she was anxious for it to be a success.
"John, check the speakers again. There's a weird echo going on," she barked.
"No problem, boss." He grinned cheekily at her, knowing she hated being called boss, and trotted off to get the job done.
She instantly regretted snapping at him. It wasn't his fault she was a nervous wreck. She'd come to the venue early for last-minute preparations, but the event was supposed to start soon. She looked at her watch again. Where was Clark?
The doors were opened to allow the guests to enter the ballroom. She smoothed her hands down her off-the-shoulders royal blue dress that flared out lightly from her waist. She felt like Cinderella at the ball with the prince a no-show.
Then she spotted Clark walking in, tall and imposing in his classic tuxedo. His hair had grown out a bit during the last few weeks, and she could tell that he'd been dragging his hands through it. He looked gorgeous as hell regardless, but something in his expression made her stomach drop to her toes.
"Clark?" she said hesitantly when he approached her.
"Sorry I'm late. I had to put some fires out at work," he said, his eyes shifting to the side.
"That's okay. I was just worried, because you weren't responding to my texts." So he was held up at work. That made sense. But why did it seem so off?
"Do you want a drink?" he asked.
"No, I want to stay sharp. It's not easy making these things run smoothly." She smiled at him. "You should go mingle, though. Tell people to donate loads of money."
His lips quirked in a ghost of a smile. "I'll do my best."
Jeannie noticed some speculative glances on them. They were so discreet with their affair; people couldn't know that they were a couple. But were they? Could she say honestly that she saw Clark only as a friend with benefits? No. That would be a lie. Their respect and affection for each other had morphed into something more during the few weeks they'd been together. At least it had for her. He'd become so much more.
Did he sense her growing affection for him? Was he afraid that he might have to break her heart to draw the line at friends with benefits? She didn't want that anymore. She was falling in love with him, and even her nasty divorce wasn't enough to dissuade her from giving her heart away again. He was nothing like her emotionally abusive ex. Clark would never tear her down until she was nothing. He was kind, considerate and affectionate, and he would keep her safe. Although his guilt and grief had taken him from her once, she wanted to trust her heart to him.
Her eyes instinctively searched him out, and she found him dutifully mingling at the other end of the room. She wanted to go to him and make sure that he wasn't drifting away from her, but this was not the time or place for it. She could wait until after the event to find out what really was bothering Clark.
Thankfully, pulling off a successful fundraising event took a lot of work, so she soon forgot to fret over Clark's odd mood. As the party went on, she and John circled the ballroom to make sure everything was running smoothly.
"Are we ready for the auction?" she asked.
"Absolutely. The question is are our guests ready to hand over their hard-earned cash to support Package Deal?"
Jeannie laughed quietly. "Well, they had plenty of food and champagne to put them in a good mood. I hope they're feeling generous."
"Go get `em," her assistant said, and held out his fist until she bumped it.
When Jeannie got to the podium, she surveyed the audience. She spotted Clark immediately but even though he was looking at her, he still seemed distant somehow.
"Thank you so much for attending Package Deal's annual Winter Ball. Your continued support helps us thrive," she said into the mic, starting her speech. "But more importantly, are you having a good time tonight?"
The crowd cheered and hooted. Yup. They were ready.
"There's nothing like having some fun to put you in a generous mood, right?" She paused for more applause. "As we proceed with the auction, please remember that when you help Package Deal, we can help more women find their dream jobs. Now for the first item on the auction block. A gourmet dinner for two on a private yacht. Doesn't that sound marvelously romantic? And a little birdy told me that the meal will be prepared by a surprise celebrity chef."
The auction went even better than expected. The hefty sum the guests bid for the various items set a record for the Winter Ball. The party continued for a while longer, the clink of glasses and ring of laughter filling the vast room. The guests were feeling high from their good deeds, as they should.
During a lull in the conversation with one of Package Deal's key donors, Jeanine met Clark's gaze across the ballroom. She raised her glass in salute, and he raised his with a small smile. But there was a dullness to his eyes that frightened her.
The festivities finally wound down and the ballroom soon emptied of everyone but the hotel staff…and Clark and Jeannie. Usually, the relief and exhaustion of successfully hosting an event crashed into her the minute everything was finished. But tonight, her anxiety about what was to come warded off the exhaustion, and she was wide awake and alert.
"Clark." His eyes didn't waver from her as she walked over to him. "Can you give me a lift home? I carpooled with John."
"Of course," he said and reached down to grab her hand before stopping himself short. Her heart plummeted. "Are you ready to leave?"
"Yeah." She swallowed the lump in her throat. "Let's go."
The tension in the car was suffocating. Jeannie didn't understand what was going on, other than her realization of her feelings for him. Was she just being paranoid because she wanted him so badly? That was the thing about want…need. It came with the fear of losing the thing you needed, and it made you even more desperate to have it.
"Are you warm enough?" Clark asked, breaking the silence.
"Mmm-hmm," she said in a startled squeak.
Then silence filled the car again. Why was she so nervous? Probably because she wasn't about to fall in love with him. She was in love with him. Despite her nerves and anxiety, his proximity made her body hum with desire. Making love had never been like it was with Clark. It was more than crazy chemistry. It was because she loved him more than she'd ever loved anyone else.
The feelings inside her were too big to be contained. They would go up to her place and figure out whatever was bothering Clark. Then she would tell him she loved him, and pray that he would give them a chance.
He parked his car in the guest parking space, but he didn't shut off the engine and sat stiffly at the wheel. Jeannie's tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth thanks to her overwhelming emotions, and she had a hard time forming actual words.
"Come upstairs," she whispered.
"Not tonight," he said with a finality that sent a chill through her.
"I had a feeling something was wrong since earlier. Tell me."
"Nothing. I just can't do this tonight," he said curtly.
"Do…what tonight?" She wasn't sure she wanted to hear his answer.
"Enjoy my…benefits with you." His voice was grittier than cracked cement.
"Enjoy your benefits?" she gasped. "That might be how this started, but things have changed. Haven't they?"
"It just doesn't seem right…using each other for meaningless sex." He blew out a harsh breath and turned to her. "Don't look so surprised. That's exactly what this is."
"You're wrong," she said in a steely voice. She was in love with this man. She wasn't about to let him relegate what they had to a prolonged booty call. And she wouldn't give him up without a fight. "I'm not using you to fill some mindless need. I'm in love with you."
He drew back from her as though she'd slapped him. For a moment, passion flared in his eyes until metal shutters came down to mask all his feelings. "No, you're not."
"You don't get to tell me what I feel or don't feel. I am my own woman, and I know my mind and heart," she said with her head held high. "I love you, Clark."
"Please stop saying that," he said stoically. "You deserve someone better."
"All I want is you." She held nothing back. Her heart was already his.
"I don't deserve you."
"What are you saying, Clark?"
"We can't do this anymore. I can't do this anymore," he said. "We could still be friends…"
"No. I'm afraid it doesn't work that way. You're the man I love. I can't just pretend I feel nothing more than friendship for you and stay in your life. It'll hurt too much. If you don't want me, I can't see you anymore."
"It doesn't have to be like that." His steely exterior cracked. "I don't want you gone from my life. Please."
"Do you think you'll ever come to love me?"
His jaw clenched and his lips pressed into an unrelenting line. He said nothing.
She was proud of herself for holding her tears back. She was devastated but she didn't want to burden him further with her tears. That could wait till she was alone. When she reached for the door handle, Clark's hand shot out to wrap around her wrist. She slowly turned to look at him, keeping her expression blank. The only way he could hold on to her was to give their relationship a chance. A real chance.
Seeming to realize that, he slowly loosened his grasp until she was free. She'd been so naïve to trust him. He'd disappeared from her life once without explanation. She shouldn't be shocked that he was doing it again. There was nothing more to say, so she stepped out of his car… and out of his life.
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